Winning season gives Colts reason to cheer and fear

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There’s been much discussion about the vibrancy of Indianapolis’ sports market.

I’m not talking about infrastructure or the national and international events hosted here or even the sports organizations headquartered here.

I’m talking about the fans who pay the freight. I’ve heard from more than a few inside and outside this market about how soft Indy’s sports fan base is.

The rising, falling and now resurrected fortunes of the Indianapolis Colts are certainly heartening for the local NFL team in the short-term. But long-term, I wonder if it makes teams like the Colts and Indiana Pacers a little uneasy.

I won’t go into all the details of the Colts 2011 season, but suffice it to say, the team tanked. During and after last season, fans became upset with team management, season ticket renewal and merchandise sales dropped, and the lengthy waiting list for season tickets dried up.

The fuming that bled into the off-season hadn’t stopped earlier this season. There were more than a few nervous souls in the Colts sales department as the team lost two of its first three games and the early renewal period for the pricey club seats ($232-$283 per seat per game) approached in early November.

One club seat holder told me he was not likely to renew and was annoyed at team owner Jim Irsay’s lack of commitment to fielding a competitive team. He added that the entertainment value of a Colts ticket had faded badly.

He was far from alone. Several season ticket holders said they were waiting to see how this season turned out before deciding if they would renew for next season. Some told me they’d rather spend their money on the recently revitalized Pacers or IU men’s basketball team.

More than a few out-of-towners crowed that what was happening here was typical of Indiana sports fans: abandoning a team down on its luck and chasing whoever is winning at the time.

Then something unexpected happened. Colts Coach Chuck Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia—and the team went on an unlikely winning streak, putting them in prime position to make the playoffs. The Colts this year are poised to win 10 or 11 games. The team’s success is beyond almost anyone’s expectations. After all, the Colts only won three games in Peyton Manning’s first year.

Suddenly, consternation was replaced with glee in the Colts sales office. Last week, team officials told me that multi-year contracts for more than 90 percent of the 4,300 club seats that expire at the end of this season have already been renewed. And with a waiting list for those prime seats at 1,500 and growing, Colts Chief Operating Officer Pete Ward has little doubt they’ll sell out the club seat inventory in early 2013.

The team’s merchandise sales are up 38 percent this year, and sponsorship sales are up 8 percent. And a year after the team saw its 15,000-name season ticket waiting list shrink by half, it’s growing again and is above 8,000, Ward said.

While this is all good for the Colts in the short-term, you have to wonder if it’s a cautionary tale for sports properties in this town—the Colts and Pacers in particular. And you have to wonder if the local fan base is soft, fickle, just looking for the best economical value—or all of the above.

After IBJ ran a story on Dec. 17 about the Colts’ recent sales success, I received the following comment via Twitter: “Bandwagon nature of Indy is a joke. Colts were calling begging for ticket buyers after just one terrible season.”

It’s a painful accusation for central Indiana sports fans, to be sure. But I’m not certain it’s completely unwarranted. Colts fans in recent years have complained that it’s either too hot or too cold in Lucas Oil Stadium. They’ve complained about sunlight streaking through the large window at the stadium’s north end. They’ve complained about the roof being open. They’ve complained when it’s closed. They’ve complained about the price of beer, soda, popcorn and other concessions.

And last year—after more than a decade of winning—they complained about a lack of commitment from the team’s owner and about the lack of entertainment value from the team on the field.

They cheered when Colts President Bill Polian was fired. They took a wait-and-see approach with Polian's replacement, Ryan Grigson; the new coach, Pagano; and even with the highly-touted No. 1 draft pick, Andrew Luck.

The Pacers, meanwhile, can’t fill Bankers Life Fieldhouse, despite offering myriad cheap tickets and fielding a team that has shown marked improvement over the last two years.

Of course, Colts and Pacers officials are extremely careful never to label any potential or current fan as fair-weather. And I’d never be one to criticize the way people—sports fans or otherwise—spend their money, especially after the type of recession we  endured.

But some observers are less kind. A new Colts season ticket holder this year suggested to me that without the fair-weather season ticket holders who abandoned the team after last season, the fans left in Lucas Oil Stadium are a lot more rabid and loyal.

“Thanks to all the fans who jumped ship last season. I’m really enjoying your seats this season,” one new season ticket responded to me via Twitter.

Colts fans came rushing back this year as fast as they fled the sinking franchise a year ago. It’s great for the team’s near-term financial fortunes.

Still, I’m not sure whether fans like that should make Colts executives breathe easier or fidget with anxiety. After all, you can’t win ‘em all. And you can’t always count on turning around a losing team in a single year.

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